Sorry this is much later than normal. Finals loom…
A film’s aesthetic can have remarkable power. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has very little in the way of events over the course of its two and a half hours, but is transformed into something utterly hypnotic and unforgettable by Roger Deakins’ astonishing visuals. Shane Carruth’s sci-fi Primer may have had one of the most intelligent scripts I’ve ever heard, with genuine insight to add to the compendium of time-travel knowledge, but it was just so ugly I didn’t pay attention long enough to find out. Animation is no different, and poor character or landscape animation can often remove you totally from a film – try watching some of the earliest CG animated films today and it’s so blocky and ugly you wonder that they ever managed something as beautifully animated as Wall E or Kung Fu Panda 2 (no, really, it’s stunning). Equally, amazing visuals can make you forgive less than stellar storytelling.
Sleeping Beauty is a film that seriously challenges the relationship between visuals and story, because it is the most stunningly animated of their films so far, yet it is full of moments of such hackneyed and cloying storytelling that it could induce nausea. It’s so breathtakingly beautiful that you want to love it, but then you quickly lose patience with how simpering and unengaging Aurora is. You don’t know whether to gasp at the widescreen magnificence or yawn at the blandness of the carboard cut-out Prince Charming. Sleeping Beauty made me question how much weak storytelling and how many dull moments I was prepared to forgive simply because it’s just so wonderfully animated. So I’ll look at these two seemingly different aspects of the film to try and work out whether I actually liked Sleeping Beauty or not. Because right now I’m confused and in two minds.
The problem, once more, lies with the Disney heroine. Whatever happened to the inquisitive, adventurous Alice, and why are we treated to a pound-store Cinderella instead? Aurora (fifteen years old; singing voice of a someone in their forties) is even less of a character than any previous princesses. It is not an exaggeration to say she only plays a role for one scene in the entire film, when she goes wandering in the woods looking for flowers or carrots or something, meets a Prince and dances with him. During this one sequences she manages to commune with the local animals – a must for any self-respecting heroine. In the rest of the film she is so inert that she is literally asleep for the majority of it. Obviously that’s the major plot device of the film, but it does make Aurora Disney’s weakest princess, given how she is largely absent.
Thankfully, the supporting characters are far better. Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, her three fairy protectors, are essentially the main characters and they are far more fun to watch than Aurora. They also show remarkable courage and compassion in the face of danger, proving, once again, that Disney’s leads are often the least interesting aspect of their films. The real show stealer, however, is Maleficent. Rocking up uninvited to the party, she curses a baby princess just because she’s a badass. Oh, and she’s the Mistress of All Evil. There’s no real insecurity or jealousy here, she’s just evil and there’s nothing you can do about it. Also, like all the best villains, she can turn herself into a dragon at will and teleport around the place in bursts of green flames. Against a villain this evil, and with the offensively dull Aurora out of the way, the final, dragon-slaying act becomes thrilling and fraught with genuine peril. The film really picks up in the end, and slightly redeems the overly familiar and somewhat boring first two thirds.
Yet even in its dullest moments, Sleeping Beauty is always impressive thanks to the astonishing animation. Lady and the Tramp was impressive, but it is with their second film in widescreen that Disney really began to realise the potential of the new format. Using the entire width of the frame, the animators cram each cel with detail and allow for visual variation within each different shot. So one half of a frame could be a landscape of woods with busy undergrowth and tall, dark trees, whilst the other half could be plains stretching out into the distance with a castle on the horizon. Layered lighting means that there is a depth and richness to the look of the film, as well.
It’s also noticeably different from the other two princess films so far. Where Snow White and Cinderella opted for soft edges and a springtime palette of pastels and hazy lighting, Sleeping Beauty is animated with thick, clear lines and bold colours. The result is something that feels like medieval illustration as opposed to the nineteenth century aesthetic of the earlier Princess films. It’s like a tapestry recounting a magnificent pageant that feels very European and historical. It’s not as overtly fantastical as the glowing magic of Cinderella, and the hellish green glare of the finale feels like it could be from a fresco in a particularly solemn church. In some ways it is more restrained than its predecessors, but it’s also unashamedly royal, rich and fairy-taleish. It’s difficult to describe, so the simplest way of saying it is that it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. So much so that I found myself totally forgetting how irksome some of the elements of the film are. I found myself totally falling for it.
Clearly, then, I was being far too negative at the beginning of the review. Sleeping Beauty is, in actuality, a brilliant film, as charming and as magical as you could hope for from a Disney film. It’s perhaps just that I’m getting Princess fatigue, and one scene of cutesy animals who follow round an impossibly slim teenage girl begins to look just like the next one. Yet Sleeping Beauty is so visually distinct from its predecessors that it does manage to make a unique mark in the Disney canon, even if it impresses visually far more than it does in the story department.
With Cinderella, the #Disney52 project finally returns to films that UK readers will have actually heard of. For many, in fact, Cinderella will be an adored classic, watched regularly in childhood and with a kind of wistful guilt in adulthood, too. The rags to riches story is arguably the studio’s most iconic, with ugly step-sisters, home before midnight magic and glass slippers entering into the public consciousness in a bigger way than most other Disney images. The titular scullery maid turned belle of the ball is arguably the epitome of a Disney Princess; Snow White established the tropes of communication with animals, pretty dresses and jealous older women, but Cindy takes it to another level. Castles, pretty dresses and cute critters abound, and the songs are about dreams and wishes and magic and all things nice. Everything that gets mocked by the Shrek films or Enchanted can be found in Cinderella. Yet considering its enduring, iconic status, it is an undeniably problematic film.
The main problem can be found in the eponymous heroine herself, as she represents the image of the Disney Princess at its worst. She’s docile, dainty and plays no active role in her journey from slave to royal. The mice that follow her around seem to have greater agency than she does (and probably take up more of the screen time, too). Admittedly Snow White opts into domestic servitude where Cinderella is forced into it, and she gets to dance and wear dresses when Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora stays asleep for most of the film, there’s still something utterly nauseating about the way Cindy sings joyfully throughout, or her friendship with the obnoxious mice that have probably given her diseases. Her two main qualities seem to be the sheer optimism with which she responds to everything, and her good looks that separate her from the ‘ugly’ step-sisters.
Yet the Princess formula has given the studio mileage for many years, and is also responsible for their most lucrative merchandising range. The ten members of the Princess canon are Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel, and will soon be joined by Merida from Brave – a character with far too much gumption to be a part of that line up. If you look at these ten, they do improve with time: Belle reads books; Jasmine marries a street rat; Mulan – the most badass princess – takes down an entire evil empire. Yet the image of the princess is one that inevitably involves getting married to an often bland male lead, and wearing nice dresses in a castle. Ending up married is, of course, no bad thing for a story – as Jane Austen fans will attest to – but the problem with the first three of these princesses is that the characters are so bland it makes the formulaic portrayal of women even more grating.
Herein lies the biggest issue with Cinderella. Snow White, at the very least, has strong supporting characters, terror and humour in equal measures and stunning animation to make it a masterpiece, whilst Sleeping Beauty has one of Disney’s best villains to make it memorable. Cinderella can’t really boast any of those things, and the supporting characters are positively irritating. There doesn’t seem to be, at first glance, anything going on under the surface of pumpkin carriages and sparkly dances. Yet for some reason people still love this film, in spite of all these very evident problems. Perhaps it is its very simplicity that gives Cinderella its enduring appeal.
When the Duke is talking to the King, he talks about the unrealistic nature of a Prince falling for a woman just by glancing at her from across the room, right as these very events are happening. The Duke dismisses such fantasy by calling it “a pretty plot for fairy tales…” That’s Cinderella in a nutshell: it’s a pretty plot unashamedly existing within the world of the fairy tale. Everything in the film sparkles with magic, making for escapism in its purest form, and it all happens with a sincerity that is disarming to modern, cynical audiences. To us, the story would end at midnight and stay that way, but this is a tale with a happily ever after that tells us the magic can last forever. The fairy godmother encourages Cinderella not to lose faith in good things happening and that people are looking out for her. That cheeriness might be difficult to swallow, but it’s that simplicity of message that makes the film so sweet, and it’s the reason it’s still loved to this day.
The animation, not quite as detailed or as beautifully lit as the Golden Age films, is as resolutely fantastical as the story. The world of Cinderella is full of elegant curves and classical European architecture reminiscent of Neuschwanstein castle in Germany (the very castle that the Disney logo is based on). Everything is bathed in an ethereal, magical light and the look of the film has undoubtedly influenced the modern understanding of the fairy tale aesthetic. It’s not subtle, but then neither is the film as a whole. It’s magical in a thoroughly old-school kind of way, and it seems churlish to be cynical when faced with such pure visual escapism.
Finally it is worth considering whether Cinderella really is as anti-feminist as the story might suggest. Firstly, the men in the film are more impotent or inadequate than any of the female characters – the relationship between the duke and the king is a battle of buffoons, both proving to be quite inept as leaders. Secondly, the heroine does eventually rise above her station, and achieve her dream, however lame modern audiences might consider the dream to be. In the process she slyly undermines her step-family, and ultimately their ugliness is not how they look, but their personalities. Her grace and humility – two very worthy characteristics – are what separate her from her step-sisters, and her continued goodness is at least one thing that young viewers of any gender can aspire to.
Whilst Cinderella feels undoubtedly dated, that’s what makes it such an appealing film. The story is simple, the lead character more so, but it’s a wonderfully sincere film that asks us to believe in happy endings, and is that such a bad thing after all?